Sunday, September 17, 2017

Get Your SWOT On

Leaders often find and leverage tools, frameworks, and systems to support their own change, as well as that of their school or district.  There are many great options out there.  As a principal, I in particular, found success using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to integrate technology with purpose in order to improve student-learning outcomes.  This framework helped us to really focus on improving instruction first before throwing technology into the mix. This then became part of a set of strategies and competencies that guided our overall digital transformation efforts – The Pillars of Digital Leadership. My work now is focused on helping leaders, regardless of position, to leverage these resources to successfully implement and sustain needed change. 

Outside of education there are other tools and frameworks that can assist with various change efforts, many of which come from the business world. Business leaders know that assessing the status of an effort prior to the change process is crucial.  Building awareness is also a key element. As an innovative leader, you are reinventing the school culture through a different lens. As such, it is important to get a sense of the journey ahead by taking stock of where you are in the current moment. Prior to leading any new initiative, you can use an adapted version of a well-known business tool to take a snapshot of where you perceive the current culture to be in its current situation. Using this adapted tool may reveal important data and insight that helps you understand the status of your culture in order to successfully implement sustainable change. 


Image credit: hwww.business-to-you.com/swot-analysis/

In BrandED, Trish Rubin and I introduced the SWOT analysis.  I will elaborate on how this tool can be used to create or enhance a brand effort, but in all honesty, it can be used to tee up any new change initiative.  SWOT Analysis is a useful technique for understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and for identifying both the opportunities open to you and the threats you face. Adapted from BrandED, here is how you can use this tool to implement a positive brand presence.
Every business brand journey includes the use of this tool, an activity known as a SWOT analysis. In conducting a SWOT, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to brand success are stated and examined.  The SWOT activity is done in the very early stages of development of a mission so that the brand strategy can be assured of success (Armstrong & Kotler, 2015).  
Adapted for educators, a SWOT analysis is a chance to understand how you perceive your school community and can help you articulate a brand that addresses the current state of the organization. Especially interesting to leaders will be the opportunities for growth that are identified, which can be used as tangible measures of brand success, and the threats that are challenging the school. Making those threats a target and finding ways to see opportunities in those challenges can strengthen the school’s brand. A SWOT analysis can serve you well in your initial reflections about both your personal brand and your school’s. A SWOT process conducted with frankness yields valuable information about the current state of an organization and directs decision making. Once the analysis is complete, it forms a direction for leaders as they take on their personal brand, as they can more clearly see themselves serving the needs of the community.  
As business managers have found, putting yourself through your own SWOT analysis can even further inform the building of your own brand. Why do a personal SWOT? A SWOT analysis may goad you into real action as you advance your own brand in real time. Honestly assessing your strengths and weaknesses and reflecting on any opportunities or threats that are present in your leadership style can help you assess your capacities before you build a professional brand that you own as the storyteller-in-chief. 
As you think about the changes you want to implement in your classroom, school, district, or organization take the time to conduct a SWOT analysis (see matrix below). This simple, yet effective process can help to identify potential pitfalls while building greater support for the effort. 


Image credit: www.thirstt.com


Cited sources

Armstrong, G., & Kotler, P. (2015). Marketing: An introduction (12th
     ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Learning from Airbnb To Create an Amazing Learner Experience

Over the past few years we have seen disruptive innovation take hold.  The entrepreneurial spirit, aided by advances in technology, has propelled the creation of new businesses that consumers are flocking to.  One of those businesses is Airbnb. I don’t want to assume that everyone knows what this company is all about so here is a summary from Wikipedia.
Airbnb is an online marketplace and hospitality service, enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging including vacation rentals, apartment rentals, home stays, hostel beds, or hotel rooms.  The company does not own any lodging; it is merely a broker and receives percentage service fees (commissions) from both guests and hosts in conjunction with every booking.  It has over 3,000,000 lodging listings in 65,000 cities and 191 countries, and the host sets the cost of lodging.
Image credit: https://airbnbreview.com

The concept is amazing as it benefits both the consumer and supplier while cutting costs.  However, the success of Airbnb as a company goes well beyond what many of us see or experience.  Their success as a disruptive innovator lies in the company culture that has been cultivated.  They greatly invest in their people, which as a strategy only has an upside. I recently read 3 Lessons From Airbnb on Creating an Amazing Employee Experience by Jacob Morgan. To lead off the piece he shares the following. 
Employee experience is a hallmark of a forward-thinking company that cares about its employees and wants to provide them with the resources to be successful.
Image credit: www.n3xtcon.com/blog/what-do-we-learn-from-the-story-of-airbnb

I encourage you to read the entire short piece.  In the article Morgan goes on to list and describe 3 important lessons that create a strong employee experience. Each in its own right is a pivotal component in building relationships. It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. Here is how those principles can be embraced in schools to improve the learner experience.

Involve students and staff

Student agency is the key to building powerful relationships with the most important stakeholder group in schools.  Affording students choice, allowing them to use their voice, and providing them the opportunity to advocate will empower them to better own their learning.  This type of involvement also leads to the creation of a better school culture beyond the classroom. We can’t forget the adults in this process. Educator agency is just as important.

Be authentic

Will the real you please step forward? That is what students and staff want to see.  Mike Robbins has a pretty good perceptive on the power of authenticity. He writes:
Authenticity is what gives us freedom to be ourselves and be comfortable with whom we are, and it’s also what gives us access to connecting with other people in a meaningful and genuine way.  This is true power of authenticity and when we embrace it, even though it can be uncomfortable and scary at times, we give ourselves and those around us one of the most important gifts of all — the real us.
Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with and for. Authenticity in leadership from your particular lens and position is critical in building a thriving learning culture. 

Continually evolve

If you want to make a difference then lead differently, learn differently, and act differently. Change begins with us.  Don’t expect others to change if you don’t first. Where it goes from there depends on the momentum that is built. The process of evolving as a whole is about overcoming fear, learning from mistakes, and challenging yourself to be better. When it comes to your school or district, the system will only evolve if you continue to push the envelope.

Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything. In doing so the learning experience for our kids should be nothing less than amazing.  If this is the goal then the work culture has to be equally as amazing for the adults. This is what I have learned from Airbnb. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Humanity's Gift

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.― Dalai Lama

Typically, I am a very focused writer.  Each post, for the most part, contains ideas and strategies focusing on improving teaching, learning, and leadership.  I often talk about accountability, evidence, and efficacy. This post will not follow that recipe. Please excuse any grammatical mistakes. 

When I began writing this post my house was being pelted with a wind-driven rain from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey.  By the time I actually got around to posting this piece on my blog the Houston area is still drying out. This has now been the worst flood in the history of the United States.  Having road out Hurricane Sandy in New York City back in 2012 I can say that this experience was worse.  In just 57 hours Harvey went from basically nothing to a Category 4 hurricane, the strongest to hit Texas in close to 50 years. The flooding and damage in the areas where the storm hit is unimaginable.  

We received approximately 28 inches of rain in just two days. Things down here were worse than what people were seeing on the news. For a 24-hour period Saturday into Sunday, there were non-stop tornado warnings with a bunch touching down in our neighborhood making sleep difficult. My kids slept in the closet for two nights as they were scared to death. All roads in/out of our community were flooded, so we couldn’t get out if we wanted to. I was outside constantly draining my pool as the surrounding drains wouldn’t have been able to do anything with the water.  The pool could have flooded my entire house from the back.  On Monday morning the water was only a few feet from our house. I wasn't worried until then. We have a lake on the left side of our house as well as one in the front.  The lake across the street had spilled over and merged with another lake.  All I could do at that point was pray for the rain to stop. Click HERE is you want to see a video from the early stages of the storm. You can also view some storm picture on my Instagram account


Image credit: kindnessblogdotcom1.files.wordpress.com

Late Monday afternoon a river began pouring into our section and the forecast wasn’t looking too good. Water levels kept rising. Since the water was only a few feet from our doors we decided to seal them using a method that one of our community members recommended on Facebook. One of our saving graces were the local Facebook pages in our community offering support, advice, and needed humor to take our minds off things.  The lake to the left of our house eventually breached.  We moved all important stuff to the second level. We had friends with boats who could get us out if needed. It was terrifying to know that no matter what you did it would not be enough if nature had its way.  

Monday night we planned for the worst. However, our prayers were answered Tuesday morning. Even though it was still raining the water began to recede. We had 33 inches of rain while south of us had over 40. We felt blessed and extremely lucky at the same time. Both airports were still closed at this time and flooding to the south of us had turned catastrophic. My hope was that the water had receded enough so I could get out of my community and help in any way I could. Finally, later that day I was able to begin to help those in need in my community. Thanks to my neighbor and his truck we made it to the grocery store to buy needed supplies for displaced families. As we were buying supplies people in line began to chip in. I began to shake and held back tears.  Humanity was beginning to rise to the occasion.

By Wednesday the water in the community I live in had receded for the most part. Our efforts were now focused on helping those around us who were not as fortunate. I teared up when I arrived at the local church with supplies and saw there was a line to drop off items. More people were volunteering across Harvey stricken areas than were needed. We saw (and are still seeing) people step up and work together regardless of race, ethnicity, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and whatever other conflicts arose in the past. Now that's humanity at its finest. Some people were surely wondering why I was posting so much about what I was specifically doing to help. It's pretty simple - my hope was that my small actions would inspire more people to take action and help. I told people on Facebook not to be proud of me for doing what was right. Be proud if a movement results. 

Shana White shared this on Facebook, "Our character is revealed to others by the fruit we produce. Adversity usually provides more character and transparency than comfortable times, but they both provide a true indication of who you are. What kind of fruit do others see from you?" Life can't always be about what we do for ourselves. It has to be equally about what we do for others. Will you step up?

Thursday was a physically exhausting day. It had been 6 days since the hurricane hit and many homes that took on water just had it recede. A bunch of us from my neighborhood drove 30 miles south to hard-hit Richmond, TX to help out the father of one of our neighbors. I in particular wasn't ready for the scale of the flooding. Watching it on TV and then seeing it in person are two different things. Mountains of debris littered the neighborhood. However, what you saw were people from all walks of life coming together to pitch in and save homes.

While I was there I kept getting email notifications that brought me to tears (again). Friends, former students, and neighbors had begun to send money to my PayPal account. This all started the a day before when a member of my PLN asked if he could send money for my supply runs. I never asked for any money to be sent and still haven't, but you cannot deny the human spirit.  I used some of the money to buy pizza for the entire neighborhood where we were helping. This was made possible thanks to the compassion of others. There is so much good in people. This is my big takeaway these past few days. I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring for me, but I do know countless more people near and far would rise to the occasion to help. 
There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”  ― John Holmes
By Friday I couldn’t believe it had already been a week since the storm hit. This was the longest seven day stretch of my life. After helping out my neighbors with a flooded home the day before I took to social media at night. Twitter was used to build awareness and share information about where donations were needed. Facebook had been a godsend in terms of identifying people who needed immediate help. I learned of a few families who lost everything. Thanks to some generous donations I was able to purchase gift cards for clothes/supplies and hand delivered them that morning. 

On my way back home I saw local CFISD schools doing a “fill the boat” fundraiser. It's always great to see students, teachers, and parents rallying together to support the needs of others. The rest of the day was spent working to save flooded homes. Many homes were still flooded and couldn’t be tended to and the majority of Texans don't have flood insurance, which makes the situation much worse. My neighbors and I formed our own little cleanup crew. We were able to hit two different locations. What was awesome to see was how local cleanup crews from across the greater Houston community formed. Social media was being used to organize and dispatch teams to specific addresses. I even learned of a new app called Zello that many were using to coordinate efforts. So many people took off work and time away from their families to help people, many of which they didn’t even know. It was a humbling experience to see many people use their privilege for good.   
"Remember that the happiest people aren’t those getting more, but those giving more”. - H. Jackson Brown
As I continue to write I cry, something I did quite often all last week.  My family was relatively safe throughout this ordeal, but the destruction just a bit south of us broke, and continues to break, my heart.  The local news showed non-stop destruction that was unfathomable.  It also brought to light the countless stories of heroism, bravery, relationship building, service, empathy, and unselfishness. Thankfully I was home for this ordeal.  I work with some incredible people at the International Center for Leadership in Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Even though my flights to the Northeast were cancelled I wasn’t going anywhere even if they weren’t.  I had the peace of mind to put work and travel on the back burner to be here for my family.  You can’t put a price tag on that.  

All week I was bombarded with texts, calls, emails, and social media posts from friends and family all over the world.  People I barely know or didn’t even know at all took the time to reach out. No one really knew what we were dealing with and how bad the flooding was in my community.  As I posted daily updates on my Facebook page more and more people offered prayers and support.  Through it all everyone asked what they could do to help or wished they were in a position to do more.  The fact of the matter is if you made the effort and took the time to reach out to anyone impacted by this storm then you did all you could do.

My wife and I can't thank many of you enough for all the thoughts and prayers that were sent our way. The days since the storm started have been excruciatingly long and nerve-raking, but the messages of hope and optimism helped us get through this even though the recovery effort has a long way to go. As all the messages of support flew in so many people asked what they could do. My response was simple – “You’ve already done something just by showing you care.”  Showing you care for anyone here in TX was all anyone could do from afar. One of humanity’s greatest gifts is empathy and showing others compassion, no matter where you are

It was refreshing in particular to see social media used for a greater purpose other than just pushing out ideas, articles, thoughts, and resources.  I developed a greater appreciation (and at times cynicism if we are being honest) for how Twitter in particular was used.   When you look at life through a completely different lens you see things that you never realized were right in front of you.  By putting work, personal issues, and politics aside just for a few minutes many people rose to the occasion.  They modeled the most enduring characteristics of humanity and helped countless people (including me) get through this horrific ordeal.  This might be the most important life lesson we can impart on our students and continue to learn ourselves.  

Life is a gift. Together we can learn to better appreciate this gift. We must use our various forms of privilege, including digital spaces, that many of us have not just during catastrophe’s like this, but also in other cases when we are compelled to do the right thing. There is more LOVE here than water. You can't go anywhere any not see it. Love conquers all including any differences we have that might seem insurmountable. This is humanity’s gift. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Will You Step Up?

Remember that the happiest people are’t those getting more, but those giving more” - H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

A major Category 4 Hurricane hit the Corpus Christie area in South Texas last Friday leaving a path of destruction.  The worst rain event in United States history is currently impacting Southeast Texas and now other parts of the state as well as Louisiana.  Flood waters continue to rise in many parts of Houston. There is no way at this point that anyone can begin to estimate what the eventual damage will be financially. Water isn’t the only thing rising. I have watched on the news and seen firsthand while delivering supplies and donations the power of the human spirit.  People are rising up to face this monumental challenge.  Not just Texas, but people from all over the country are stepping up to help those in need. Regardless of race, religion, politics, ethnicity, and sexual orientation Houston is showcasing the best in humanity.  We are seeing the same further south around Corpus Christie. 



People still need you help. Fellow Texan Kasey Bell penned an informative post the other day detailing how you can help ALL areas of Texas that have been impacted by Harvey.  Please click HERE and see all the options that are available.  Houston Texans star J.J. Watt has done an incredible job raising millions of dollars (donate HERE). Houston ISD in particular needs help for their students.  Check out this amazing letter from Los Angeles Unified School District, which outlines what HISD needs.  You can also donate directly to the HISD Foundation. You can also find a list of schools all over the Houston area who need help HERE. If there are links to what schools need down in the Corpus Christie/Port Aransas area please post below in the comments.

"The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others." -  Albert Schweitzer

I am currently working on a longer post that outlines what I experienced during Hurricane Harvey these past couple of days.  For days my family and I were trapped in our home surrounded by flood waters.  No water got in our home. We were lucky.  Once the storm began the true power of social media took hold. Friends, family, colleagues, and connected educators used the medium to reach out.  Even people that I didn’t think I had the strongest relationships with put any differences they might have had aside and demonstrated empathy and compassion.  With each message I teared up. Small gestures of kindness mattered to me and they matter to others. I have no problem stating that I really needed it because I did. Each message made a positive difference.

While being trapped in my home I was able to spend a great deal of precious time with my family.  At other times I took to social media and utilized my large networks to build greater awareness of the catastrophe taking place right before my eyes.  This is where a person's lens can change.  I have learned that Tweetdeck, my Twitter tool of choice, is both a blessing and a curse.  On one hand, it was great to see so many people across my network offer words of support, prayer, and compassion.  These messages were not just directed to me, but to others.  That is how social media should work.  

On the other hand, I saw silence. The power of social media is squandered if it is not used to build awareness and people up during challenging times. Influence in a box doesn’t matter much to those outside of it.  Now is the time to actually back up all the talk about relationships, empathy, and leadership on social media. Not everyone can donate money or be on hand to volunteer.  We will continue to work down here to address the physical needs of displaced families.  However, anyone can send messages of encouragement, hope, and support. I implore you to use your networks, influence, and social media channels to build more awareness as to the situation down here.  It only becomes real for some people if those with large followings start discussing it. It also provides an opportunity to deliver much needed emotional support and compassion to people that really need it right now.

Houston and Southeast Texas are watching. Corpus Christie and South Texas are watching. The world is watching. We all have not just an opportunity, but a responsibility to use this amazing tool that many of us talk about professionally to do some real good.  Sharing this post is a start. Reaching out to educators and schools to see what help they need or offering kind words is another option. Will you step up? 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Be the Example

The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” – Paulo Coelho

Change is hard.  I have been writing about this fact for years now.  It becomes even harder when we are not modeling the expectations that we set for others. This was the case for me early on during my days as a principal.  When it came to technology and innovation, I was great at telling others what they should be doing. After getting on Twitter in 2009 I realized that we had to be better for our kids.  As such I did what I was trained to do and what I thought was the most logical course of action to get buy-in from my staff.   I drafted memos and emails that provided guidance and examples.  I spent a great deal of time writing numerous detailed memos on everything from technology tools to improve assessment, developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN), and embracing innovative ideas. Then I waited.

The wait for any sort of change was never-ending.  I probably would have been still waiting if I hadn’t grabbed a teacher I had a good relationship with and asked him why no one was embracing all these new ideas and strategies I was pushing out. He was pretty blunt and to this day I am indebted to him. Basically he told me that no one was integrating technology or implementing innovative ideas because I wasn’t doing any of it myself.  His words and simple advice provided a great lesson in leadership.  



Asking others to do what we are not doing, or have not done, ourselves doesn’t lead to meaningful change. Research supports this claim. James Kouzes and Barry Posner have researched the topic of leadership for over 30 years looking at thousands of leaders in a wide range of industries throughout the world. Below are some key takeaways in relation to being the example:

Eloquent speeches about common values are not nearly enough. Exemplary leaders know that it’s their behavior that earns them respect. The real test is whether they do what they say; whether their words and deeds are consistent. Leaders set an example and build commitment through simple, daily acts that create progress and build momentum.
The personal-best projects we studied were distinguished by the fact that all of them required relentless effort, steadfastness, competence, and attention to detail.  It wasn’t the grand gesture that had the most lasting impact. Instead it was the power of spending time with someone, of working side-by-side with colleagues, of telling stories that made values come alive, of being highly visible during times of uncertainty, of handling critical incidents with grace and discipline, and of asking questions to get people to focus on values and priorities.

Leadership is not about telling people what do to, but instead taking them where they need to be. Setting an example through your own practice illustrates to others that change is a shared endeavor. It is about the collective where a title, position, and power don’t give someone a pass.  When it all is said and done leadership is about action, not talk and opinion (or memos and emails in my example). Setting an example and modeling are the first step. The next is a combination of support, accountability, and evidence that leads to efficacy. When everyone sees how the change(s) actually improve teaching, learning, and leadership the path to sustainability is started.

In my case I began to learn how to use certain technology tools after which I made myself available to then train my staff after school. I made my learning through a PLN visible and used the new acquired knowledge and skills during training sessions, faculty meetings, observation post-conferences, and evaluations.  The practice of modeling expectations actually strengthened the emails encouraging my staff to improve their practice. Over time change took hold and evidence of improvement bolstered our resolve to keep pushing the envelope. Together we were then able to show efficacy aligned to technology use and innovative ideas. 

Take time to reflect on whether or not your words are supported by appropriate actions.  Change is a collaborative process if it is to be successful.  Showing others that you are not just willing to learn, but how changes to practice actually improve teaching, learning, and leadership can and will have a lasting impact. Evidence matters and when aligned with the example you set no goal is out of reach. In the end it’s not about what is said, but what is done.  Be an example that empowers others to change.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Impact of an Educator

I fondly remember when I was first asked to consider what my future career path might be.  Mrs. Williams, my kindergarten teacher, asked the class to draw a picture that articulated what we wanted to be when we grew up. I immediately knew exactly what I was going to draw. That was the easy part. The difficult task, for me at least, was to then utilize what limited artistic abilities I had to create an illustration that depicted my future career. To this day I still remember the image I created of a farmer tending to his crops. This was a natural career choice for me as a six-year-old having grown up in a rural area of northwestern NJ with a farm right across from our house. I had no idea how to farm, but being outside the rest of my life was good enough for me.

As I aged the thought of becoming a farmer faded as I began to focus more on careers in the biological sciences. Growing up surrounded by nature and spending each summer at the Jersey Shore helped to kindle and sustain an interest in this area.  I never gave much thought, nor did either of my brothers, about becoming an educator. Quite honestly, I told myself, and my parents, that I would never become an educator.  My response might have stemmed from the fact that I really didn’t understand what they actually did and the impact they were having on kids. All I knew with a great deal of certainty was that a career in education was not in the cards.

My mom, after taking many years off to take care of us, eventually became an elementary teacher where she had a celebrated career.  I say celebrated because at her retirement dinner I was able to witness firsthand the impact that she had on students and colleagues alike. Their stories of her passion and dedication for helping kids learn made me so proud. My father was a successful school administrator for what seemed like forever.  He held many positions, but what I was most in awe of was the fact that he was an elementary principal at the same school for close to 30 years.  When he retired they gave him a key to the city. I don’t know if you can be more successful than that. I never knew the impact my parents had as educators until after I myself became one. Hearing story after story about their work as their careers ended taught me that sometimes the ultimate reward for an educator comes years after we have had direct impact with kids or adults. 


Image credit: http://www.teamworkandleadership.com/

Herein lies the motivation behind this post.  I recently received a text message from a former student and athlete of mine. It started off like this:

"Coach Sheninger, is this still your number?"

My response was a simple yep.

He then went on to text me the following:


"Well hey, its Spenser Brenn just in case you lost my number. Sorry if it’s super early. As sappy as this is going to sound…."

I really was not prepared for what followed next, but I can tell you that his words below touched my heart and soul.


"I was just working out with my athletes and kids yesterday and it reminded of when I was in high school. You let me workout with you and would push me in the weight room, classroom, and on the football field. I have always been asked why did you want to become a teacher and coach. To be honest, I wasn't sure of that answer until I had this moment yesterday when I realized that those seemingly trivial moments of the two of us working out at lunch or study hall were more impactful than most other moments during high school for me. You were tough on me (a pain in the butt, or at least in the eyes of a stupid high school kid), deservingly so, considering I was a pain right back to you. However, you taking me under your wing and motivating, mentoring, and challenging me (whether you knew it or not) meant and still means more to me than you probably know, or more than I knew until yesterday. So I just wanted to reach out and say this - a small gesture like working out with a pain in the butt kid meant the world to him. It showed that you cared, something he, and all people, needed at that time. Thank you. I now know why I became a teacher, a coach, and a mentor to the youth."

It goes without saying that I was totally humbled by Spencer’s message.  As educators we all chose a profession that would not lead to riches in a financial sense. We chose to become educators so that we could not only help kids learn, but hopefully impact them well beyond just grades and achievement.  Education is a calling. It is a calling to make a difference.  That’s what educators do on a day-to-day basis.  Never forget that your work matters and that each day you get up in front of a class, help lead a building, or collaborate with others to run a district that you have an opportunity to positively impact kids. This also applies to your work with adult learners. 

Below is the response I sent to Spencer.


Well you just made my day, well week actually (maybe the entire summer). Life is so much more than what we are made to think is important. Everything comes down to relationships built on trust, empathy, compassion, understanding, and honesty. I really never knew until later in my education career that one of the most important things we can do is to show kids we care. It's not until much later in life that we learn of the impact we have on our students. You will one day be in the same position as me, a proud person humbled by the feedback that you receive knowing that you positively influenced others. Thank you so much for taking the time to send that text. It meant more than you will ever know.

Why did you become an educator? Who were those people and experiences in your life that led you to your current role?  In my new role, I still see myself (and other amazing speakers and presenters) as an educator. Each day is still a calling to try to make a difference.  Whether or not I make a real difference is in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, I am driven by the same passion I had as a teacher and principal to help others see the greatness that is within all of us.  

Thank you to every educator out there for the work that you do.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Leading is Not Easy

This post, like so many, has been inspired by something I read.  One of my favorite sites to glean more insight and knowledge on leadership is Inc.  Even though the site shares content specific to business growth and innovation so many of the articles and opinion pieces connect to leadership in the education space.  By using Flipboard I have instant access to many of the pieces that appear on Inc thanks to the fact that I have leadership set as one of my magazine categories.  If you are not using this app please download it to your mobile device.  It is one of the best ways to create your own personalized magazine based on your interests and social network activity that you can literally flip through.

The other day Flipboard exposed me to this gem written by Nicolas Cole titled The Brutal Truth About Why Being a Leader is So Hard.  The premise of the article, as the title implies, is the inherent difficulties associated with any leadership position. Cole goes on to explain the following:


"What's difficult about leadership is that nobody ever sits you down and "teaches" you what being a real leader is all about. There's no class in early education that defines leadership. Peers in group projects tend to label leaders as "overachievers" (and not in a good way). In college, leadership is reduced down to who is going to talk the most during a presentation. And even on sports teams, the leader is usually the best player--and wears a letter on his or her jersey as a trophy of their accomplishments."

His synopsis really resonated with me.  It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges he or she will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made.  There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught.  Learning about how to prepare a budget is entirely different than creating one on your own when all the unique challenges are factored in.  It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go.  Making decisions in time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses.  The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical.  

Looks can be, and are, deceiving.  Talking the talk has to be accompanied with walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done.  Here is some sage advice that I learned long ago as a new principal who started drinking the digital and innovation Kool-Aid long ago – “Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing or have not done yourself.” Modeling is one of the most impactful elements of leadership. It builds trust leading to powerful relationships.  

Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement.   Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction, but rather the collective efforts of all.  The premise of every decision and action has to be geared towards the “We” instead of “I”.  It’s not about coming up with all the ideas, but helping people implement not only the ones you develop, but also the ones that they develop. Leading from the front is an outdated style that doesn’t foster shared ownership.  



It’s our experiences that help all of us to develop into better leaders coupled with the support we get from colleagues. From experience, we learn that trying to be right all the time only makes the job exponentially harder.  Work inside out to make leading a little easier by focusing on the why, how, and what in that order. Make the time to hone your communication skills, as you will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Mastering this art is no easy task and takes constant practice and reflection in order to improve.

Regardless of your position leading is hard, yet gratifying work.  Keep an open mind, regularly reflect, pursue learning opportunities that push your thinking, and understand that you will never have all the answers (which is quite ok).  It is also helpful to be flexible.  I leave you with some more thoughts from Nicholas Cole that might just build greater leadership capacity in you and others:


"True leadership is the ability to communicate and effectively reach each and every person you work with, in the way that works best for them. 
It's the ability to be flexible. 
When everyone else is stressed, you're calm. 
When everyone else is out of gas, you inject more fuel. 
When everyone else doesn't know what to do next, you lead by example. 
When someone has an issue, you work with them and listen to them on a personal level."

Stealing from Ghandi, be the change you wish to see in education.  Just know that any change journey is not an easy one. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Avoiding Initiative Overload

As many of us know all too well, the process of change is not always a successful venture. It is fraught with twists and turns, not to mention challenges that come in all shapes and sizes. Out of the chaos excuses materialize, further complicating the process.  One common excuse, or challenge depending on your point of view, is too many initiatives at once.  In business, some estimates indicate that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. That’s right. Research has shown that up to 7 in 10 corporate initiatives have not led to sustainable change (Blanchard, 2010). 


Image credit: johnrchildress.files.wordpress.com

Initiative overload is just as common in education as it is in business. The numbers referenced above could easily correlate to education, and the percentages may even be worse. Today, schools and leaders work to juggle numerous initiatives simultaneously.  This can result in a drain on resources as well as a lack of focus on the primary task at hand – improvement of student learning. While each separate initiative is established to improve school culture, the more tasks that are added to the proverbial plate increase the likelihood that they all will not be sustained over time. For every new initiative launched, another one slows down or ceases altogether.

Tony Sinanis, a newly appointed superintendent and great friend, tackled this topic on his blog. He makes the point that many initiatives are problematic from the start.  


"I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners.

Tony goes on to outline four specific reasons, based on his experience as a practicing school leader, why too many initiatives can be problematic:

  • Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set.
  • Initiatives are piled one on top of the other.
  • Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids.
  • We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it.

Tony provides some wise advice for all educators as we grapple with mandates, directors, the “flavor of the month”, and a need to innovate while also increasing achievement. A general understanding that the student learning experience must be transformed has created incredible opportunities for the future yet has simultaneously caused significant turmoil. As school leaders work to redesign their schools, they must be careful not to immerse themselves, their teams, and their students in an alphabet soup of initiatives. This is something Tom Murray and I address in Learning Transformed. In our experience, initiative overload is one of the primary reasons that transformational change fails. When making investments in the form of time and money, think about where you will get the most bang for your buck. Investing in people is the best investment one can make. That’s the key to sustainable change.

Throughout the book, we present a plethora of research, evidence, stories, and practical steps to transform learning, but school leaders cannot lead change in all areas, at all times. It’s easy for leaders to get excited about what could and should be, especially for those who are most passionate about creating new innovative opportunities for students and staff. Although well intended, too many ongoing initiatives can easily dilute the effectiveness of sustainable change. Avoiding initiative overload by maintaining a laser-like focus on what evidence indicates is required and essential for sustainable growth and transformation. 

It all comes down to this basic piece of advice. Do one thing great instead of several things just ok. Leading transformational change isn’t easy. But our kids are worth the effort. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Beyond Perception

"People only see what they are prepared to see." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is full of twists and turns as well as ups and downs.  In my opinion, it is a never-ending test that determines the trajectory of our career paths.  It is not about passing or failing, but rather taking what we have learned to improve our position in life, whether that be professional or personal. Never did I once think that my professional life would have evolved as it has.  I was fortunate to become an administrator at the relative young age of 29. Three years later I became the Principal of New Milford High School. It was in this position that I really began to learn about effective leadership.  


Image credit: http://jonlieffmd.com/

My journey to become an administrator almost didn’t come to pass.  As a teacher, I was only afforded the opportunity to work with a limited number of students who I had the pleasure of teaching.  To increase my potential impact on more students I coached three different sports (football, lacrosse, ice hockey) and volunteered to advise the environmental club.  I was hungry to have an even greater impact on more kids, which led me to pursue my administrative credentials.  Excited and determined to lead change in a broader context, I began to look for administrative openings where I could serve more kids. I could not wait to face and overcome the challenges ahead while working collaboratively with a staff of educators committed to helping students learn.

My excitement quickly turned into despair.  Countless cover letters and resumes were sent out with no response. I then worked to improve my cover letter and made sure my resume articulated how highlighted experiences applied to the field of educational administration. What followed was a pleasant surprise.  I began to receive numerous interviews and was on top of the world. My confidence grew, but just like a roller coaster ride it soon plummeted. In many cases I didn’t make it out of the first round, as it was determined that I lacked the needed experience.  When I eventually became a finalist for positions I often lost out to others that had applicable experience.  I sure don’t miss those interviewing days.

I was plagued by the perception that my age and lack of experience would prohibit me from doing the job of administration. Truth be told that many of us have been in this same position.  The best way to counter this perception is to keep moving along and constantly seek out our experiences that will prepare us for new positions.  If you are a teacher or instructional coach ask your administrator if you can volunteer as an intern. We did this at my former school. In lieu of a non-instructional duty, teachers could request a yearlong administrative internship where they assisted with day-to-day leadership tasks. This was not only a great help to me and my team, but more importantly it gave these teachers relevant experience that they could put on their resume. If you are an aspiring administrator or looking to move up the ladder, find ways to get involved with the budget, observations, evaluations, curriculum development, walk-throughs, professional development, and master scheduling.  

Perception always surrounds our work and us.  As I have moved on from Principal to my new role as a speaker and author many people assume that I am, or always have been, gifted in these areas.  The reality though is that I struggle in both areas. Public speaking has been a bit easier for me than writing. I was always terrified to speak in public prior to social media. My worst day of the school year was graduation when I had to deliver a speech and then correctly pronounce all the names of the graduating class. This posed to be quite the challenge when the parents of your students speak over 40 different languages. To successfully get through this I meticulously planned and wrote the speech weeks prior to graduation.  I also met with every single student beforehand to phonetically write out their names.  

Over time I became a more confident and polished speaker. Through social media I found my voice. It was naturally easier to speak in public when afforded the opportunity to present on the work of my students and staff. This does not infer that I am now a gifted speaker.  Some might think this is the case, but again this is far from the truth. I work harder now than I did as a principal to prepare for diverse audiences who all have different needs and expectations.  In reality, it is the preparation beforehand and attempts to share strategies that are not only practical, but also aligned to research that aid in my delivery.  

Writing on the other hand is something with which I struggle.  As an author of six books, numerous articles, and a blog, I am dogged by a perception that I am a good writer. Quite frankly I am not in my humble opinion.  Over the years I have had to deal with some harsh critical reviews. One reviewer of Digital Leadership said the book shouldn’t be published.  Each week I labor over creating a blog post.  Coming up with a topic is hard, but what’s even harder is putting succinct words to create a post that people want to read and find valuable.  I begin writing on Monday with the goal of having a post ready to go by the following Sunday. My mom also edits all of my posts and I try to get feedback from family and friends before the post goes live.  She says my writing has really improved, by as my mom I think that is what she is supposed to say to build my confidence. 

So why do I continue to write then? Just because I am not as gifted as others doesn’t mean that I don’t have important ideas and thoughts to share.  Every time I write it is a constant reminder how I am working to overcome a weakness and turn it into a strength. I battle the perception that some have placed on me, but more importantly I tackle head on the perception that I often develop for myself.  Reality is determined by what people see and the actions that we take behind the scenes.  I am not sure any of this actually makes sense to you, but in my reality it makes perfect sense to me.

Perception is important for our students and their success. They should never perceive that they are inferior to their peers if they don’t do well on standardized tests or more traditional, one-size-fits-all assessments. Some students just don’t learn this way.  We also have to be careful of developing a perception that some students don’t want to learn, as we are unaware of the challenges or demons they are tackling at the moment.  All kids (and adults) have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of a caring educator to help them find and unleash it. 

Don’t let perception define you, your work, or your students.  Helping others to look through a different lens can lead to a more accurate reality, which benefits all of us. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Research-Influenced Learning Spaces

We need to move away from classroom design that is “Pinterest pretty” and use research/design thinking to guide the work.” – Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray

When Tom Murray and I set out to write Learning Transformed our goal was to connect as much research as possible to our ideas and statements as well as the amazing work taking place in schools, known in the book as Innovative Practices in Action (IPA’s). Research should be used to inform as well as influence the actions we take to implement sustainable change at scale.  It is also a great way to move those who are resistant to change to embrace new ideas. Below is an adapted section of Chapter 4 from our book that looks as research that can influence learning space design in classrooms and schools.

Image credit: http://www.naturalinteriors.com/wp-content/uploads/Steelcase-2.jpg

One area where we found a growing body of research was learning space design. In studying various pieces of literature on the effect of design, Barrett and Zhang began with the understanding that a “bright, warm, quiet, safe, clean, comfortable, and healthy environment is an important component of successful teaching and learning” (p. 2). Their research suggested direct connections between the learning space and sensory stimuli among students. The evidence of such connections came from the medical understanding of how human sensory perception affects cognitive calculations. As such, Barrett and Zang (2009) identify three key design principles:

  1. Naturalness: Hardwired into our brains, humans have the basic need for light, air, and safety. In this area, the impact of lighting, sound, temperature, and air quality are prevalent.
  2. Individualization: As individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized and, we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to environmental stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success.
  3. Appropriate Level of Stimulation: The learning space can offer the “silent curriculum” that affects student engagement levels. When designing the space, it’s important for educators not to overstimulate and thus detract students’ ability to focus but to provide enough stimuli to enhance the learning experience. 

Supporting this notion, a research study out of the University of Salford Manchester (UK), followed 3,766 students in 153 elementary classrooms from 27 different schools over a three-year period, analyzing classroom design elements along the way. The report indicates clear evidence that “well-designed primary schools boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing, and math” (Barrett, Zhang, Davies, & Barrett, 2015, p. 3). The study found a 16 percent variation in learning progress due to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Additionally, the study indicated that whole-school factors (e.g., size, play facilities, hallways) do not nearly have the level of impact as the individual classroom.

School leaders will often write off the notion of redesigning learning spaces due to financial constraints. However, research indicates that schools don’t need to spend vast amounts of money to make instructional improvements. In fact, changes can be made that have little to no cost yet make a significant difference. Examples include altering the classroom layout, designing classroom displays differently, and choosing new wall colors (Barrett et al., 2015). These research-based factors are minimal financial commitments that can help boost student outcomes. 

The effect of learning spaces on various behaviors—territoriality, crowding, situational and personal space—has been the focus of some sociological and environment behavioral research. The consensus of this research is that the space itself has physical, social, and psychological effects. One study measured the impact of classroom design on 12 active learning practices, including collaboration, focus, opportunity to engage, physical movement, and stimulation (Scott-Webber, Strickland, & Kapitula, 2014). The research indicated that intentionally designing spaces provides for more effective teaching and learning. In this particular study, all of the major findings supported a highly positive and statistically significant effect of active learning classrooms on student engagement. 

In a research study on the link between standing desks and academic engagement, researchers observed nearly 300 children in 2nd through 4th grade over the course of a school year (Dornhecker, Blake, Benden, Zhao, & Wendel, 2015). The study found that students who used standing desks, more formally known as stand-biased desks, exhibited higher rates of engagement in the classroom than did their counterparts seated in traditional desks. Standing desks are raised desks that have stools nearby, enabling students to choose whether to sit or stand during class. The initial studies showed 12 percent greater on-task engagement in classrooms with standing desks, which equated to an extra seven minutes per hour, on average, of engaged instruction time. 

There’s little disagreement that creating flexible spaces for physical activity positively supports student learning outcomes. However, it’s important to note that it’s not simply the physical layout of the room that affects achievement. One particular study investigated whether classroom displays that were irrelevant to ongoing instruction could affect students’ ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and learn the lesson content. Researchers placed kindergarten children in a controlled classroom space for six introductory science lessons, and then they experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the room. The findings indicated that the students were more distracted when the walls were highly decorated and, in turn, spent more time off task. In these environments, students demonstrated smaller learning gains than in cases where the decorations were removed (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014).

In addition to the physical and visual makeup of the learning space, a building’s structural facilities profoundly influence learning. Extraneous noise, inadequate lighting, low air quality, and deficient heating in the learning space are significantly related to lower levels of student achievement (Cheryan, Ziegler, Plaut, & Meltzoff, 2014). Understanding how the learning space itself can affect the way students learn is key. Part of the issue facing school leaders today is that quite often the decision about learning space design is made by those without recent (or any) experience teaching or by those with little knowledge of classroom design. If learning is going to be transformed, then the spaces in which that learning takes place must also be transformed. Design can empower learning in amazing ways.

Today’s educational paradigm is no longer one of knowledge transfer but one of knowledge creation and curation. The “cells and bells” model has been prevalent for more than a century, but it is no longer relevant for today’s learners. As educators work to shift to instructional pedagogies that are relational, authentic, dynamic, and—at times—chaotic in their schools, learning spaces must be reevaluated and adapted as necessary. Pedagogical innovation requires an innovation in the space where learning takes place. Simply put, if the space doesn’t match the desired learning pedagogy, then it will hinder student learning outcomes.

Fore more research-influenced ideas and strategies to transform education grab a copy of Learning Transformed. There is also a free ASCD study guide aligned to the book that can be accessed HERE.



Cited Sources


Barrett, P., & Zhang, Y. (2009). Optimal learning spaces: Design implications for primary schools.
Salford, UK: Design and Print Group.

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Davies, F., & Barrett, L. (2015). Clever classrooms: Summary findings
of the HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design). Salford, UK: University of Salford,
Manchester.

Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis
identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678–689.

Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S., Plaut V., & Meltzoff, A. (2014). Designing classrooms to maximize
student achievement. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 4–12.

Dornhecker, M., Blake, J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of standbiased
desks on academic engagement: An exploratory study. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 53(5), 271–280.

Fisher, A., Godwin, K., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and
learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological
Science, 25(7), 1362–1370.

Scott-Webber, L., Strickland, A., & Kapitula, L. (2014). How classroom design affects student
engagement. Steelcase Education.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Authenticity in Leadership

Leading change in any organization is a difficult task.  In many cultures the status quo is so entrenched that shifting mindsets and behaviors can be daunting.  Clearly establishing the why is a natural starting point and can help to propel the change effort at hand.  The how and finally the what should then follow this. Even when leaders tackle issues and problems using this recipe, other challenges and obstacles frequently rear their ugly head.  The research that Tom Murray and I share in Learning Transformed can help guide anyone, regardless of his or her position, to move change efforts forward that sustain over time no matter what issue might arise.  The best LEADERS:

  • Learn
  • Empower
  • Adapt
  • Delegate
  • Engage (face-to-face and digitally)
  • Reflect
  • Serve

In many cases, buy-in is a common strategy used to implement and sustain change. Looking for buy-in might serve as a temporary fix, but sustainable change is driven by embracement. People need to understand the inherent value that comes with them being asked to change their practice or thinking. When it comes to change, most people are naturally against it as our brains are wired to keep us safe. The only group of people who really love change all the time are wet babies (the power of a dry diaper has a magical effect).  Our practices and actions must make it more palatable and doable. Modeling, providing support, listening, and alignment to research are sound strategies that many leaders consistently utilize. Sustaining any effort relies on substance in the form of evidence of improved outcomes and efficacy. 


Image credit: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-ways-own-cape-authentic-leadership-jill-sweiven

With the many challenges that leaders face when it comes to change, what overreaching strategies can be utilized to make leading it successful?  The answer lies in authenticity.  Mark Bilton recently penned a piece on this topic. In his article he states the following:


"The fast-paced, dynamic world of rapid change that used to be confined to distressed organizations is now everyone’s world. We are in a marketplace changing at digital speed. With so much disruption, new generations and a hyper-connected world where information is a commodity, the leadership paradigm has to shift. The industrial revolution model of command and control leadership is no longer effective."

Authentic leaders embrace digital to lead successful change efforts.  He goes on to state:


"To enable an organization to thrive today, leaders have to embrace an authentic leadership style. It promotes an engaged, flexible and innovative environment, one able to match the pace of change we now face."

Digital leadership is authentic in nature.  It is about leveraging digital tools and spaces to develop relationships, promote transparency, showcase success, openly reflect, and share powerful stories. By communicating the why, how, and what, leaders can be proactive in creating a narrative rich in evidence, connected to research, and clearly showing efficacy. Authentic leaders understand the power of engaging face-to-face, but are also constantly working to create a new playing field by thinking forward. That’s where the digital piece comes into play.

Mark Bilton goes on in his article to describe the five pillars of authentic leadership: collaboration, vision, empathy, groundedness, and ethics.  Each is a defining characteristic that embodies great leadership. In a digital world it is difficult to be authentic if you are not leveraging digital strategies to become better at what you do. Leaders can now collaborate locally and globally without the constraints of time and space. A vision for change, as well as the actions that follow, can be shared across various channels to build greater embracement. By engaging in digital spaces, leaders can develop a greater sense of empathy by listening to the concerns and challenges of others and then offering support. Digital spaces can provide a needed break from the daily ups and downs of the job while also providing a platform to reflect. Finally, ethical behavior can be put on display highlighting appropriate and professional use. This type of modeling can go a long way to empowering others to not just change, but to become digital leaders themselves.

Be true to yourself and others. When you fail (and you will), showcasing your vulnerable side will only help to strengthen the bonds with those you work with. Being human is more important that being right all the time. You will never have all the answers or solutions needed to move large change efforts forward. Look to others to find answers to questions and help you achieve your change goals.  Continue to improve in ways that push you outside your comfort zone. With authenticity on your side finding success will be much easier.